In Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, Jeff Chang chronicles the historical roots of contemporary hip-hop culture. Chang notes the decline of industrial America, the rise of crack, and the prevalence of urban street gangs as three major antecedents to hip-hop. To be sure, it wasn’t gangs themselves that gave rise to hip-hop; rather, the strong territorialism of street gangs directly translated into hyper-territorialism among MCs and DJs as hip-hop spread throughout New York City.
It’s not surprising that we continue to see this pattern today. From Nas repping Queensbridge, to T.I. repping Bankhead, to Trick Daddy repping Miami, to The Game repping Compton, to Bun B repping Houston, to Kanye repping Chicago, hip-hop is most definitely a regionalist genre—with representation spanning the entire U.S.
After watching Notorious, I started thinking more about regionalism in hip-hop—basically, why every rapper in the game tries to lay claim to either a major metropolitan region or an NYC borough. There’s a fundamental problem with this, however: Far too many rappers are grossly dishonest about their humble, urban roots. Take Biggie, for example. As in the movie, he claims to be from Bedford-Stuyvesant, a Brooklyn neighborhood not exactly known for safe streets. Well, Biggie actually grew up in Clinton Hill, a very nice and relatively affluent Brooklyn neighborhood. P. Diddy’s Wikipedia page (which his people most definitely edit on the regular) lists his “true” hometown as Harlem. But Diddy grew up in Mount Vernon, a pretty nice lower-middle class black suburb of NYC. My high school basketball team actually played them in the first round of the state playoffs a few times. What about Public Enemy, arguably one of the most politically charged hip-hop groups of all time? They are from NYC’s most famous suburb: Long Island. Younger rappers are also following this trend. Take Kid Cudi. He was born and raised in Shaker Heights, Ohio, one of Cleveland’s most affluent (and integrated) suburbs. During his sophomore year, however, he moved to Solon, Ohio, a very nice suburb that contains the state’s best public school. A friend of mine from East Cleveland recently told me that Solon is the new suburban destination for affluent and upwardly mobile blacks. Yet, Cudi never reps Solon, or Shaker Heights for that matter. Nope, he reps Cleveland.
There are some exceptions in commercial hip-hop, most notably Wale who often reps Prince George’s County in suburban Washington DC. But these are few and far between; urban territorialism reigns supreme. Consider all of the beefs over residence: Fat Joe dissing 50 Cent for living in Connecticut, T.I. going to Texas to prove that Lil Scrappy wasn’t from the projects, Shawty Lo most recently questioning T.I.’s claim to Bankhead, etc. And these are just three in the last couple years that immediately come to mind.
It’s one thing for my classmates to say they are from Chicago when they grew up in Northbrook; but these rappers use their “hometowns” as claims to authenticity. It’s a little dishonest, in my opinion. I certainly don’t blame them. Just ask Rick Ross about the need to uphold a certain image to be commercially successful.
But, the suburban roots of some of our favorite (and, black) rappers makes Asher Roth’s claim to suburban supremacy that much more arrogant. The white suburbanites that Roth claims should be his base are literally and figuratively living alongside their favorite black rappers. Newsflash: black people live in the suburbs. And some of them grow up to be famous rappers.
Rakim once rapped “It ain’t where you from, it’s where you at.” But Mobb Deep’s lyric, “F*ck where you at kid, it’s where you from” is more relevant today. Yet when rappers discuss “where” they’re from, they rarely provide the full story. Far too often rappers mislead their audiences, claiming urban legitimacy when in actuality they lived a very suburban life.
Maybe we wouldn’t have to deal with white suburban supremacy from the likes of Roth if rappers were more forthright about their suburban roots.